Israeli soldiers fire mortar shells, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near Israel's border with Gaza in southern Israel, January 3, 2024. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

By Simon Lewis, Nidal al-Mughrabi and Emily Rose


 – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will hold talks in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia on Monday before heading on to Israel after warning that the Gaza war could spread across the region without concerted peace efforts.

Blinken started a five-day Middle East diplomatic effort in Jordan and Qatar on Sunday, seeking to avert a wider war in the region. He is also due to visit the West Bank and Egypt this week.

Blinken Presses Arab States to Discuss the Future of Gaza

“This is a moment of profound tension for the region. This is a conflict that could easily metastasize, causing even more insecurity and suffering,” Blinken told a press conference in Doha before heading to Abu Dhabi.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said the intensity of the offensive in Gaza signalled his country’s determination to destroy the militant group Hamas that rules the enclave and deter other potential Iran-backed adversaries, including Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“My basic view: We are fighting an axis, not a single enemy,” Gallant told the Wall Street Journal. “Iran is building up military power around Israel in order to use it.”

Israel PM Says Iran Regime-Backed Hamas Must Be Destroyed for Peace

Israel and Hezbollah often trade fire across the Lebanese border and the Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen seem determined to continue attacks on Red Sea shipping until Israel stops bombarding Palestinians in Gaza.

The Gaza war was triggered by a surprise Hamas attack on Israeli towns on Oct. 7 that Israel says killed some 1,200 people. It says 240 were taken hostage.

The Israeli offensive has so far killed 22,835 Palestinians in Gaza, Palestinian health officials said on Sunday, with 111 dead and 250 wounded added to the tally in the previous 24 hours.

The fighting has displaced most of Gaza’s 2.3 million population, left many homes and civilian infrastructure in ruins, and caused acute shortages of food, water, and medicines.

Blinken said he would tell Israeli officials it is imperative they do more to prevent civilian casualties in Gaza and that Palestinian civilians must be allowed to return home and not be pressed to leave Gaza.

Jordan’s King Abdullah urged Blinken to use Washington’s influence over Israel to press it for an immediate ceasefire and warned of the “catastrophic repercussions” of Israel’s continued military campaign.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue fighting.

“The war must not be stopped until we achieve all the goals: the elimination of Hamas, the return of all our hostages and ensuring that Gaza will no longer pose a threat to Israel,” he said at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. “I say this to both our enemies and our friends.”

Despite global concern over the death and destruction in Gaza and widespread calls for a ceasefire, Israeli public opinion remains firmly behind the operation, although support for Netanyahu has fallen sharply.

PALESTINIANS REPORT 50 KILLED

Over the weekend, residents reported intense gun battles in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, and in central districts of the densely populated enclave. Israeli strikes on houses in Khan Younis killed 50 people, health officials in the hospital there said on Sunday.

An Israeli air strike on a car near Rafah in southern Gaza on Sunday killed two Palestinian journalists, according to health officials in Gaza and the journalists’ union there.

Central Gaza has been the focus of a heavier Israeli ground and air offensive in the past two weeks, with residents reporting tank shelling as explosions lit the skies overnight on Sunday.

In a post on the social media platform X, Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri lamented that Arab and Islamic countries had yet to back South Africa’s call for genocide proceedings against Israel at the International Court of Justice.

“‎We hope that there will be a remedy, otherwise this official silence will constitute a mandate for the occupation to eradicate what remains of Gaza,” he said.

Israel denies targeting civilians and says Hamas militants deliberately embed themselves among civilian populations. Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, denies that.

VIOLENCE IN WEST BANK

As part of his trip, Blinken aims to press hesitant Muslim nations in the Middle East to prepare to play a role in the reconstruction, governance and security of Gaza if and when Israel manages to eliminate Hamas, a State Department official said earlier.

Outside Gaza, there was more violence in the occupied West Bank, where hundreds of Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers and settlers over the past weeks.

Israel’s military said Israeli aircraft fired on Palestinian militants who had attacked troops in the city of Jenin. Palestinian health officials said seven Palestinians died in the strike.

An Israeli border police officer was killed and others wounded when their vehicle was hit by an explosive device during operations in Jenin, Israeli officials said.

Israeli emergency services also said Israeli police killed a young Palestinian girl in a car at a West Bank crossing when they opened fire on another car suspected of a ramming attack.

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